If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slaughter of the Innocents: The Iraq War as seen through the lens of Matthew 2

The gospel of Matthew (Chapter Two) records a terrifying tale of the massacre of numerous innocent lives instigated by a political leader and ancient "terrorist," King Herod. The story is traditionally referred to as "the slaughter of the innocents." After Herod met the Magi from the East, who were searching for the Jewish Messiah, he ordered the massacre of every child two years and under in and around Bethlehem, hoping to cut off any threat to the power of the Roman empire. The client-king Herod was well known for his ruthlessness and tyranny. As blood ran through the streets, the cries of mothers echoed down the narrow alleys and through the lamp-lit rooms of trembling inhabitants of the city. Jesus barely escaped Herod's bloody sword by becoming a refugee in Egypt. But many innocent lives were caught in the crossfire of Rome's politics of violent power.

This story echoes countless other stories of innocents slaughtered, both ancient and modern. Biblical readers are immediately reminded of the Old Testament story of the birth of Moses. Baby Moses ended up floating down the Nile in a basket because of Pharoah's decree to kill all the Hebrew babies in an effort to keep the Hebrew population at a level that would not become a threat to the security of his empire. Again, untold numbers of innocents were caught in the crossfire of political policies. The slaughter of innocents is a perpetual theme in the exercise of the politics of violent power. Innocent people seem always to bear the burden of empires seeking to control the world and wage war on peoples and nations who appear to threaten the empires' well-being, security or power. The slaughter of the innocents is a heart-wrenching byproduct of power struggles and clashes of peoples. When sanctions are ordered, targets mapped, raids conducted, villages bombed and prisoners collected, innocent people inevitably end up getting ground up in the gears of the war machine. In 2001, America was stabbed in the heart as two planes, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The event overwhelmed our collective mind, through the sheer number of innocent lives, over 3,000, lost in a terrorist game of power politics. We must not forget that those numbers represent individual human lives, each with family and friends, history and hopes, that were cut short. We readily recognize that such slaughter and abuse of power can never be justified.

When the innocents killed are not our people, we may have more difficulty recognizing their deaths as a "slaughter." Political and military leaders, average citizens, and even those who claim the name of Christ, often justify the slaughter as a "necessary evil," an unavoidable part of war. The death of innocents becomes a price paid for protecting our freedoms, our way of life and our national security. Such justifications have always been part of the slaughter of innocents. Can't you just hear the voice of the Pharoah of Egypt echoing across time? Well, we had to immediately deal with the increasing population of the Hebrews. If they became too numerous, those Hebrews could revolt. That would prove to be an imminent threat to the security of our empire. Egypt must remain the sole superpower.
Or imagine the voice of King Herod: I was charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace of my region and squelching any potential challenge to Caesar's rule. To allow for a Jewish king would be a threat to Caesar and the empire. People are either with us or against us. So I pre-emptively stopped this threat to Rome's security. Innocent deaths are just a part of protecting the empire. All the while, the voices of the innocents, who would challenge such justifications for their deaths, were silenced. Were their deaths really a necessary and justified part of the politics of power?

In our day, we place a heavier burden of proof upon any justification for the death of innocents. Those of us who are "pacifist" Christians have a problem with any justification for violence against any other human being, innocent or not. But even Christians who hold to a "just war" tradition theoretically recognize that for war to be just there must be a right conduct of war and limitations need to be placed upon war by discriminating between combatants and innocent civilians. "Just war" Christians are ethically responsible for listening to the voices of the innocent, who may become "collateral damage," even before they become victims of war. By that I mean, even Christians who believe in the possibility of a "just war" have an ethical responsibility to seriously consider the impact a war might make upon noncombatants before supporting or continuing a particular war when the death of innocents becomes disproportionate to the good the war seeks to produce.

All of us, Christian or not, recognize, mourn, and cry out in anguish over the more than 3,000 slaughtered in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Rightly so. But there have been over 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians killed in our war with Iraq (see <http://www.iraqbodycount.org/>). We were rightly outraged by the death of so many of our own innocent citizens. Yet any protest of the death of more than 10,000 innocent human beings, persons with families and friends, histories and hopes, seems to have been silenced by our own justifications and politics of power, even among Christians. Or now, with the fickle wind of public wind blowing against the war in Iraq, it seems that the slaughter of innocents has all but been forgotten. Those of us who listen to the voice of Christ must not silence the "voices" of the Iraqi innocents by forgetting that they, too, have been crushed under the wheels of the politics of violent power.

"Christ-ians" must remember that Christ's earthly life began and ended with a slaughter of innocents. Although Jesus blessed the peacemakers, rebuked his vengeful disciples and taught his followers to love their enemies, his life was ended by crucifixion, an act of torture and terrorism. Jesus became an innocent victim of the Roman Empire's violent politics. But Christ's voice was not silenced. God raised Christ from death, thus justifying his nonviolent way of life. The living voice of Christ continues to speak. This voice still calls us to peace and to end the slaughter of innocents by forsaking our complicity in and justification of the politics of violent power.

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